Flags at Francisco and Devon – all photos courtesy of CDOT, taken the day the flags were installed
[This piece also runs in Time Out Chicago magazine.]
This fall the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) used a shock-and-awe strategy to raise awareness of pedestrian safety issues. As part of its $495,000 “It’s Up To You” safety campaign, funded by a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, CDOT placed scary ads on trash receptacles and buses, illustrating the devastating effects of reckless driving. The department also installed 32 dead-white mannequins along Wacker Drive representing Chicagoans killed by cars last year.
CDOT’s latest ped safety initiative is also in-your-face, but in a kinder, gentler way. On December 8 the department zip-tied canisters of blaze-orange safety flags to poles at ten uncontrolled (no stoplight or stop sign) intersections near senior centers, schools and hospitals all over town. Since state law requires cars to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, you’re supposed to grab a flag, wave it to signal drivers to stop, cross the street and leave the pennant in the container on the other side.
On the Monday three days after the flags were installed, I visited locations around the city to find out whether people were actually using the flags, or just stealing them.
At Brunson Elementary, 932 N. Central in Austin, the canisters were in place, labeled with directions for use, including the caveat, “Use at your own risk!” but all the flags were gone. “They were here last week,” said school engineer Joseph Pondelicek. “Somebody probably snagged them over the weekend.”
A close up view of one of the label on the holding canister says how to use the flags, the slogans of the campaign, but also “use at your own risk”.
In West Englewood at 64th and Western, near Claremont Academy, all six flags were still present. As neighborhood resident Deirdre Hatten was about to cross Western, I asked if she wanted to try using a flag. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” she said. “Drivers ain’t going to stop because they’re ignorant.” But motorists did slow down as she waved the pennant and sashayed across the street in knee-high boots, a Betty Boop jacket and a Santa cap.
Nearby at Churchview Manor senior apartments, 63rd Street and Talman, a concrete pedestrian refuge island in the middle of 63rd had chunks missing from where speeding cars had crashed into it. Four flags remained, and as resident Odelia Gardner prepared to cross I encouraged her to try using one. “The flags are a good idea but people are gonna take them just for the hell of it,” she said. After she waved a banner and stepped into the street I got nervous as cars sped towards her, but they eventually stopped. She looked delighted as she marched across and greeted crossing guard Gail Williams, arriving for work. “I got to do your job today!” Gardner crowed.
Over at Tarkington Elementary, 71st and Spaulding, all six flags were present, but at 79th and Loomis in Ashburn, near St. Sabina Elders Village, only two remained. “They’re already taking them,” said a female crossing guard at the intersection. “But you shouldn’t have to use those flags because the law says cars are supposed to stop.”
Up north in Rogers Park at the Croatian Cultural Center, Francisco and Devon, across from fragrant Anmol BBQ Pakistani restaurant, all the pennants were missing. Three remained at the six-way intersection of Elston, Grace and Bernard, across from the Abbey Pub, near Murphy Elementary. I asked Elvia Diaz, crossing with her little daughters Katy and Wendy, if she knew what the flags were for, and Wendy answered, “They’re for you to grab and wave at cars so they stop and you can cross the street.”
At Belmont Place senior apartments, Belmont and Kilpatrick in Kelvyn Park, manager Esmeralda Campos told me she brings the flags in at night so they don’t get stolen. Resident John Santiago said the pennants are a big success. “Everybody’s using them because people around here drive like they don’t give a damn.”
The next day I returned to Belmont Place, waved a flag and succeeded in getting a pick-up truck to stop. I asked the driver what he thought the flag meant. “Probably some kind of construction project,” he replied. Back at the Abbey Pub, I saw that the last three banners had been stolen. “It’s too bad,” said crossing guard Ana Aviles. “The kids got a kick out of using them.”
When I called CDOT Pedestrian Coordinator Kiersten Grove and told her all the flags had vanished from three of the eight locations I visited, she said CDOT will occasionally restock the pennants, but she was unfazed that they disappeared so quickly. “This was meant to be a temporary campaign,” she said. “The idea was to raise awareness of pedestrian safety and spark conversations and we’ve definitely done that.”